We know a great deal, yet very little, about Nijinsky.  The traces of his life, his dancing and his choreography have been used to create biographies, reconstructions, plays, films, novels and documentaries, but we can never, of course, recreate the experience of watching him dance.  Kally Lloyd-Jones’ work addresses a very specific aspect of Nijinsky’s life; his tragic descent into madness.  Nijinsky’s Last Jump asks what happens when someone loses touch with what the rest of the world considers to be reality.

At the start, we encounter Old Nijinsky (James Bryce), confined within a set that represents both the asylum and the theatre (the flowers, the dressing table, the posters), before his younger self (Darren Brownlie) leaps through the window stage right and collapses panting on the floor.  We know from Old Nijinsky’s ports de bras, the costume and the music that this is Le Spectre de la Rose, and throughout the work Lloyd-Jones uses musical references to conjure up instantly the ballets that shaped and punctuated Nijinsky’s life. In a series of episodes, separated by the sound of a frantically scribbling pen, we see Young Nijinsky standing on a chair in the wings desperately shouting the time during Rite of Spring, or creating the strangely frieze-like poses and two-dimensional movements for L’après-midi d’un faunePetrushka encapsulates the dilemma of Nijinsky’s identity crisis, pathetically resolved, but not solved, in the puppet that stands for both the man and the performer.

How knowledgeable does the audience have to be to understand this work?  Lloyd-Jones does not make concessions to those who are not ballet ‘aficionados’, but her piece has universal meaning.  A modern audience cannot fail to be horrified by Old Nijinsky’s recital of the list of brutal medical treatments inflicted upon him.  The pathos, as Old Nijinsky uses a watering can to sprinkle the studio floor that we know is not the studio floor, or Young Nijinsky desperately flails to-and-fro in a straitjacket, or Old and Young Nijinsky cling to each other as if trying to unify a hopelessly divided self, is deeply moving.  The work also questions our definition of lunacy: is Nijinsky really so much madder than the people who would pay huge sums for just a petal from his costume?  Is Nijinsky’s delusion that he is in a ballet studio or a theatre so much more eccentric than our acceptance that the stage we see before us represents back-stage, and that there is another invisible stage beyond the wings?  Where does society draw the line between originality and craziness, and are creative artists particularly vulnerable to falling on the ‘wrong’ side of that line?

Company Chordelia has brought Oxford an exciting dance-theatre piece, meticulously researched by Lloyd-Jones, beautifully designed by Janis Hart and Laura Hawkins, and with fine performances by Bryce and Brownlie. The company will bring a new dance work about Lady Macbeth to The North Wall in the autumn: it is not to be missed.

Maggie Watson

7th May 2016